Permaculture in action

Here’s the thing with permaculture: the goal is to emulate nature to foster a more symbiotic relationship between plants and plants, plants and animals and plants and humans. You’re aiming to create a forest, in a sense, that contains all your food. After a few decades work for the average gardener – or in this case volunteers – is eventually phased out. If done right, you don’t even have to water the plants.

IMAP (Instituto Mesoamericano de Permacultura), where we are now, is a prime example of efficient, working permaculture, which is great to see firsthand, but can get kind of boring when your workweek is only about five hours long. Here’s a photo of one task we undertook — making a compost tea from coffee shells.

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But it’s hard to complain when you wake up to this every morning.

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Chicken bus

I suppose they call it that because you can carry your chickens on board — though this wouldn’t really distinguish these multi-colored Blue Bird school buses from any other buses that traverse Latin America. Instead, I think the way passengers are crammed onto the vehicle — sitting three to a seat and squeezing themselves into any available space left in the aisle — is more likely to have inspired the nickname. Riding a chicken bus must be what it feels like for laying hens in a factory hen house.

This will give you a sense.

After four months of traveling through south and central america I suppose it was naive of me to think there would be some sort of maximum capacity threshold on public transit. After we had filled three people to each seat, I thought the driver or pasaje man might say “no mas” and instead speed by hopeful individuals holding out for a ride. But this was not the case.

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Three to a seat? No problema. Just stand in the aisle. Can’t push your way through? Try flinging open the emergency exit door in the back and hopping on. This move somewhat complicates the pasaje man’s job, but each new passenger means more money, so he makes sure to catch all the riders. At one point this meant having to walk over the tops of seats in order to get back to the front, as the aisles were too congested for him to pass.

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On our ride from Guatemala City to San Lucas, Dave and I put the maximum capacity around 75 people. Next time I’m presented with the option, I think I’ll go free range.

Small world, big lake

I guess Lake Atitlán is known for more than just permaculture. Turns out it’s a huge destination for tourists, as it has several pueblos dotted around the lake that range from party cities to tranquil escapes. And – who knew – it’s especially popular with DC-ers. Yesterday Dave and I took the boat shuttle across the lake to meet up with two of my friends from DC. Incidentally, their meet up was unplanned as well, but ran into each other in Antigua and even booked the same hostel on Lake Atitlán.

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And just like DC we all met up for happy hour. The other side of the lake is worlds different than San Lucas Toliman and Patchitulul. For the night we traded our five-home community and homemade tortillas for eggplant parmesan and couches. That might not sound like much, but after cold outdoor showers, a communal kitchen and bunkbeds, the hostel in Santa Cruz was pretty luxurious.

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Guatemala City

Made it to Guatemala City! After just over an hour-long flight, we arrived in the capital, which turned out to be even smoggier than Mexico City. Like most of the capital cities in Latin America, Guatemala City is nestled in a valley and surrounded by mountains, I think. It’s a bit too hazy to make them out. Though in our hotel’s brochure the penthouse view is extraordinary.

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Aside from our photoshopped vista provided in our hotel’s brochure, our short venture through the touristy/financial district also colored my first impression of Guatemala City. Something was slightly amiss in what resembled a swanky Mexico City neighborhood and perhaps it had to do with the dozen or so “security” guards standing outside the restaurants, parking garages and strip malls holding AK-47s. Their stagnant expressions weren’t exactly putting me at ease.

Later on, a conversation with a cab driver – coupled with Wikipedia research – only made things worse. Turns out, according to our cabbie, pretty much everyone in Guatemala City is armed, certainly the ones driving nice cars. This is for security, he told us. Though to protect yourself from what or whom, I’m not sure.

Wikipedia mentioned that Guatemala’s civil war between the government and rebels — that began in 1960 —  only ended in 1996, and new information about war atrocities along with genocide accusations are still coming to light. Maybe I learned too much last night, or maybe it’s just first-day jitters, but I was pretty happy to board the ancient Blue Bird school bus and put 100 km between me and the city.

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Dolores

Serendipitously, we headed to Guanajuato City the same day the entire state holds its own festival and celebrates the Virgen de la Dolorosa – aka Dolores. Not sure that I ever really grasped the full meaning of the holiday, but the entire city came out this morning to stand in line for free popsicles.

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The men are supposed to buy flowers for their ladies and the kids are supposed to throw eggshells filled with confetti at one another.

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The first egg I got a hold of I chucked on the ground, wanting to hear that popping noise. But after getting more than a few looks from locals, Elyse asked a vendor what you’re supposed to do with the eggs — for good measure — and turns out kids smash them over their friends’ heads.

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Didn’t make the most sense, but still made for a good mini vacation.

Mucho malo

As an Eagle Scout backpacking his way through Latin America, the one thing that scares Dave more than getting robbed and kidnapped by narcotics traffickers, is getting food poisoning. My three bouts of salmonella in Peru have made him extremely amoeba conscious. On Wednesday Elyse, Dave and I decided to take the luxury bus to Guanajuato City – the birthplace of Diego Rivera, the hometown of political cartoonist José Guadalupe Posada and the city made famous by its seemingly endless supply of mummies.

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Something about the combination of above-ground crypts and extremely dry desert air makes for impeccably preserved human bodies. After seeing our fair share of deflated – yet intact – Mexicans from the 1800s and early 1900s, we headed back to the Zona Centro of Guanajuato City for a bite to eat.

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We had passed this charming café a few times and decided the 75-peso menu del dia was worth it. I got the vegetable lasagna, and Dave, the chicken flautas. Neither were really that exciting – or maybe we’ve been spoiled by outstanding and prolific Mexican food – but something was definitely funky with my greenish lasagna. Dave and El confirmed my suspicions, saying it tasted rotten. When the waiter came back over, I told him it was no good, and Elyse quickly stepped in to expand on my elementary Spanish. Understanding the waiter had said we weren’t able to exchange it or send it back, and sensing that we were being too soft, Dave stepped in to say things as forcefully as possible. However, this is much more difficult to do in Spanish. Frustrated, he blurted, “es mucho malo” pointing to the mushy pile of vegetables, and shaking his head. Elyse, the waiter and I knew what he meant – the lasagna was bad – but what he had said was “it’s a lot bad.” El and the waiter chuckled, but Dave persisted. “Es putrido” he repeated, wearing his best disgusted face.

Despite his efforts, the lasagna sat there untouched, and Dave mostly stewed about the unaccommodating wait staff, and thought of new lines he could have said. When he asked us how to say “worst” in Spanish, we knew we should probably get the check before he had a chance to tell off our teenage waiter. We finally settled on not leaving a tip. At least we dodged salmonella this time.

Teotihuacan

“The place where men become gods.” This was the slogan for Teotihuacan – the ancient city about one hour from Mexico City. And while that may have been true for its estimated 200,000 – 250,000 inhabitants who lived there during its peak, because Dave is already known as Jesus del barrio, perhaps it didn’t work on us.

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Like Templo Mayor these ruins also show levels of inhabitancy, beginning in 100 BC until it was abandoned around the 8th centtury. Some of the really ancient stuff was covered up by subsequent rulers who wanted to go bigger and better.

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However, in the early 1900s the archeologist who discovered Teotihuacan, Leopoldo Batres, began restoring the site and did so incorrectly. For instance he created five tiered sections to summit the enormous Piramide del Sol instead the original four. Either way, still pretty cool to see.

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Here’s the adjacent Priamide de la Luna

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Que rico

There’s no denying Mexico City’s rich history. Often times historical sites are bursting with artifacts to the point where one city block tells the story of half a dozen different centuries. And while Mexico City’s years of tradition and culture unfold through its gorgeous colonial churches and prolific ancient ruins, just as equally rich — and dare I say even more of an attraction for tourists — is the outstanding food! Despite what Chili’s labels as Mexican food, the cuisine here is so much more than heaping piles of yellow rice and re-fried beans.

Since we arrived four days ago Dave and I have proceeded to devour nearly every food item that we are somewhat able to pronounce. But the smörgåsbord is never-ending. Every day Elyse comes up with new dishes that somehow have escaped our eating rampage. Yesterday we tried tortas — giant fast-food sandwiches that can come with fried pork or shredded chicken. The one shown here is chorizo.

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Before that it was quesedillas, which you think you’ve had, but you’re wrong. In Mexico City quesedillas aren’t just two sad flour tortillas glued together with a bland moterey-cheddar blend. Nope, these are made with crispy blue corn tortiallas — slightly grilled — filled with saucy meat or local vegetables. Dave’s favorite is huitlacoche, which is a mushroom that grows on corn kernels — kind of like a two for one.

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Me, I gravitate toward the nopales, which is sauteed prickly pear cactus that tastes like limey green beans. Anyway, the list goes on and on. There are moles (sauces made from cacao), and huarache (giant flat tortillas topped with salted beef, sour cream, cheese and nopales). There’s comida corrida that’s the typical four-course lunch, then to follow there’s traditional Mexican ice cream and paleta, or popsicles. They even make Micheladas better in Mexico. Here’s Dave with a 40 oz michelada that has a candied chile lime syrup on the rim.

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While I’m perfectly content to continue eating my way through the city, the only downside — beside probably gaining a pound a day, and the inevitable food comas — is that I’d rather spend my time trying every single type of fried pork than learning the differences between Aztec and Teotihuacan architecture. Oh well, something tells me Montezuma would understand.DSCN4352

Feeding the animals

Here’s some Mexican wildlife. I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to feed them, but Elyse couldn’t resist at least tempting these Brazilian aardvarks called coatis with her granola bar.

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But they’re not so cuddly when they’re swarming you from all angles.

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A few times some brave coatis even tried to chomp through her backpack.

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Catedral metropolitana

Elyse is our tourguide for the next two weeks. And because she’s technically a local — for at least a year — we’re getting the VIP treatment in Mexico City. Her friend Angel is an architect whose company was hired to help the sinking 19th century Catedral Metropolitana that was built atop Aztec and Mexica ruins. His office is in the crypt of the church, and during his extremely long lunch break Angel was able to give us the complete tour — including a trip up to the bell towers. Here we are on top of one of the inside arches.

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This window is part of the highest ceiling in the cathedral.

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Here’s Templo Mayor, which was part of the original Mexico City (Tenochtitlan) and was first built in the 1300s and unearthed in the 1970s. The cathedral was built on top of the ruins and is now sagging in the middle, slowly sinking back into what used to be a lake. Angel’s architectural firm was hired to figure out how to make the massive church at least sink evenly.

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